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After initial surprising dialogue, 'Glee' taking a turn toward the serious

Dale Roe

Nearly a month ago, I wrote a column about "Glee," the Fox musical hit about a band of misfits and outcasts who find refuge in fictional McKinley High's glee club. A reader's letter prompted the column; she was outraged by the show's pilot and wondered if others had reacted the same way.

"Some of the content of the show, specifically related to discrimination, got me pretty fired up," the reader wrote. "The blatant blows at disadvantaged groups are too big to ignore!"

Her assessment wasn't entirely inaccurate. There were — and continue to be — derogatory comments about homosexual and physically challenged students on "Glee," which returns to Fox's schedule on Wednesday after a break for the baseball post-season. One gay character, Kurt, is routinely thrown into a trash bin by the jocks, and in one episode those same bullies lock Artie, a student who uses a wheelchair, in a portable toilet.

And Sue Sylvester, the abrasive, success-at-any-cost cheerleading coach portrayed by real-life lesbian Jane Lynch, regularly insults anybody who, well ... who isn't her:

"I'll often yell at homeless people, 'Hey, how is that homelessness working out for you? Try not being homeless for once,' " she says. "I empower my Cheerios to be champions. Do they go to college? I don't know. I don't care. Should they learn Spanish? Sure, if they want to become dishwashers and gardeners." She refers to the minority students in glee club as "Santana, Wheels, Gay Kid, Asian, Other Asian, Aretha and Shaft."

My take was that the hateful comments and actions — especially from Sue — were so over the top, and delivered with such a ridiculous level of vitriol, that it must be social commentary in reverse: Bigotry was being mocked by placing it center stage and shining the McKinley High auditorium spotlight upon it.

You tended to agree.

"I think if anything, the writing is intended to show just how ludicrous Jane Lynch's character's way of thinking is," one of you wrote. "She is obviously the mouthpiece of the extreme; the Archie Bunker of this show." Another reader agreed. "She is all three Heathers. She is the villain tying hapless females to the train tracks while twirling her mustache. She is not meant to be taken seriously. But she is there so that others can be taken seriously." Another reader was surprised to discover that viewers took the show so literally, noting that "it seems to me to sweep in very broad strokes."

Lisa Rogers, director of programming at Out Youth (www.outyouth.org), an Austin-based nonprofit whose mission is to support and provide services to gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth ages 12 to 19 in Central Texas, was kind enough to discuss "Glee" with me for my initial column. "I wish they would have a character in there who was a fierce queer," she said then, "and who was OK with it, instead of ashamed."

One reader, who said he'd "thought a lot about the intersection of art and reality," responded directly to Rogers' wishes:

"I agree it would be nice if there were a 'fierce queer' to stand up to discrimination on the show," he wrote. "But I would submit that, in the real world, such fierceness is rare, especially during adolescence, and expecting the show to suggest otherwise is asking it to torpedo its own success in favor of pushing an agenda. Wish the gay kid could admit his crush on a jock? Sure, why not; I wish I had been able to admit my crush on some girls I knew as a teen, too, but, especially in high school, that's not always the way things happen."

The column transported other readers reluctantly back to their high school days, too.

"As a straight male who grew up in a small, conservative town, watching Kurt get picked on by the football team left me feeling remorseful for things I witnessed as a teenager in my own high school, but never tried to stop," one reader wrote. A gay reader offered this: "I can relate to being the geeky kid in high school who had a crush on the football jock, that was me back in the day. The show has me rolling on the floor laughing one minute to grabbing the tissue box at show's end."

"I think it's sort of real ... kids who are different get picked on in high school," another e-mail read. "I hated high school. I'm hoping these misfits make out OK in the end."

"Glee" is hardly nearing its end, but the misfits are making strides. Readers, with the benefit of a few more shows under their belts than the initial letter writer had, were pleased to see the character development exemplified by a particular scene in "Glee's" third episode.

"The scene of the son coming out to his father will be an enduring classic," one woman wrote. "It was a perfect example for parents on how to respond to their child if they do have this conversation."

Change is good, and character development is to be applauded, but I'm afraid "Glee" might be swinging too far in the other direction. Without giving away spoilers, this Wednesday's episode is preachy to the point of "after-school-special"-ness. It just may jump the shark, in a wheelchair. The assassination of Lynch's character continues, the pregnancy drama ramps up and, of all things, Kurt chooses to tone down his ferocity. The sad fact is that the more serious "Glee" gets, the less gleeful it becomes.

Those of you who wanted the show to be more sensitive might regret getting what you wished for.